Written by Andrew Whitehead.
‘The writing on the wall is clear’, one of India’s more thoughtful politicians declared earlier this year. ‘We are on the brink of losing Kashmir’. P. Chidambaram, at various times home and finance minister in Congress-led governments, is not given to alarmism and loose talk. ‘The alienation of the people of the Kashmir Valley is almost complete’, he wrote in April. ‘We cannot retrieve the situation through a “muscular” policy – tough talk by ministers, dire warnings by the Army Chief, deploying more troops or killing more protestors.’
Chidambaram’s concern is not that Pakistan will snatch the Kashmir Valley from India, but that the corrosive effects of oppression, marginalisation and despair will push a new generation of Kashmiris towards armed militancy. Seventy years after the Kashmir conflict first erupted in its modern guise, it continues to unsettle South Asian diplomacy, tarnish India’s democratic and secular credentials and blight the lives of millions of Kashmiris.
Kashmir remains deeply volatile. Militant groups appear to be recruiting again and the level of violence in the Kashmir Valley is edging upwards. Young Kashmiris are angry and feel voiceless. They have lost confidence not only in conventional Kashmiri parties but in separatist leaders as well. There are some suggestions that radical Islam is finding a toehold.
The response of the Indian authorities has been not to seek political dialogue, but to toughen up its approach to internal security. India seems to have decided that it can live with an awkward insurgency, and simply ignore international expressions of concern – not that there have been that many.
In the closing stages of the Raj, Britain quietly assumed that the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir – three-quarters of whose citizens were Muslims – would go to Pakistan. But the decision rested with its Hindu maharajah. Courted by India’s Sardar Patel, and goaded by an invasion of Pakistani tribesmen, he eventually – in late October 1947 – signed an instrument of accession to India.
Less remarked upon in the various competing historical narratives is the popular political mobilisation which marked the eclipse of the maharajah and the ascendancy of his nemesis, the Kashmiri nationalist leader, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah. He was released from the maharajah’s jail in late September 1947. A month later, he was in charge: a militia loyal to him (which included a women’s wing) was patrolling the streets of Srinagar, and his party was in a position to implement aspects of its distinctly radical, Communist-tinged, ‘New Kashmir’ manifesto.
Sheikh Abdullah was also – at this stage of his political career – a supporter of accession to India. That gave legitimacy to Kashmir’s new status as part of independent India. When Pakistani irregulars invaded the Kashmir Valley in the autumn of 1947, Sheikh Abdullah’s militia fought alongside Indian troops to repulse them. The turbulent events of that time are explored in my book A Mission in Kashmir (Penguin India, 2007).
Over the past seventy years, India and Pakistan have fought four wars – the most recent, the Kargil war, in 1999. Three of those wars have been conducted principally in or about Kashmir. In 1949, after the first war, the United Nations helped to draw up a ceasefire line. It’s changed barely at all in the intervening years. What’s now known as the ‘line of control’ informally partitions the former princely state. The greater part is with India – including all the Kashmir Valley, as well as the politically and culturally distinct regions of Jammu and Ladakh. The UN-supervised plebiscite which India pledged to hold to decide the status of the former princely state has never happened. Both India and Pakistan continue to claim sovereignty over all of the maharajah’s former dominions.
It is hazardous to telescope seventy years of Kashmiri history into a few paragraphs – especially when just about every aspect of it is bitterly contested. But when the past shapes the present so directly, it’s something that can’t be avoided.
By 1953, Sheikh Abdullah was moving towards advocacy of Kashmir’s independence. His old ally, Jawaharlal Nehru – India’s first prime minister – endorsed his dismissal and detention. The political scientist Ashutosh Varshney, at a recent lecture in London, described this as one of three illiberal moments which diminish Nehru’s reputation (the others being the dismissal of the elected Communist state government in Kerala, and the internment during a brief border war of Indians of Chinese descent).
From then on, state governments in Jammu and Kashmir survived only if they did Delhi’s bidding. Elections were rigged and civil society suborned. Confidence in conventional politics ebbed away, as did the fairly modest measures which gave the state a special status within India.
In 1989, a separatist insurgency erupted. The causes were local, as were those who initially took up weapons. But Pakistan trained, armed and bankrolled the insurgency. For several years, Kashmir was a battleground. The Indian security force presence was suffocating and there were grave human rights violations. Separatist groups turned on the small (and largely privileged) Kashmiri Hindu minority, almost all of whom fled the Kashmir Valley. In all, tens of thousands were killed.
The early 1990s were a grim time in Kashmir – but by the end of the decade, India had largely defeated the armed militancy. As President Musharraf sought an accommodation with India, Pakistan’s active support for the insurgency diminished – though it never completely stopped. At one point, Indian intelligence estimated there were fewer than 200 armed militants active in the Kashmir Valley.
India failed to undertake a political initiative alongside its military supremacy. And from 2010, young Kashmiris embraced a new form of anti-India movement – not taking up arms, but staging large street protests and throwing stones in what became known as Kashmir’s ‘intifada’. Just over a year ago, a young and popular militant leader – his standing coming almost entirely from social media – was killed by Indian troops. That prompted a wave of protests widely described as an uprising.
Kashmir remains deeply volatile. Militant groups appear to be recruiting again and the level of violence in the Kashmir Valley is edging upwards. Young Kashmiris are angry and feel voiceless. They have lost confidence not only in conventional Kashmiri parties but in separatist leaders as well. There are some suggestions that radical Islam is finding a toehold. Most of the young are not pro-Pakistan but want an independent Kashmir – something that India will never countenance.
The response of the Indian authorities has been not to seek political dialogue, but to toughen up its approach to internal security. India seems to have decided that it can live with an awkward insurgency, and simply ignore international expressions of concern – not that there have been that many. Pakistan continues to champion the Kashmiri cause, and there’s been a modest upturn in exchanges between Indian and Pakistani troops along the line of control, but appears reluctant to return to the level of support for armed separatists witnessed in the 1990s.
And so, seventy years on, what’s so often called the unfinished business of Partition remains a festering, weeping wound, and there’s little to suggest that it will heal any time soon.
Dr Andrew Whitehead is an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham. He has written on ‘The rise and fall of “New Kashmir”‘ in Chitralekha Zutshi (editor), Kashmir: history, politics, representation, to be published shortly by Cambridge University Press. He tweets @john_pether Image credit: CC by Obama White House/Flickr.